Is Stress Actually Contagious?
By Janet Early
We know that a cold is contagious and so is a yawn – but is stress? Can you “catch” someone’s sense of tension or spikes in cortisol? Can stress wreak havoc on your body and mindset, even if it’s not yours to begin with?
Several recent studies are confirming that yes, you certainly can.
The Proof Is In The Studies
A study conducted by a group of psychologists at St. Louis University evaluated the physiological changes that occurred in people observing someone else going through a stressful situation. While the “stresssees” performed a public speaking exercise or mental arithmetic challenge, the “watchers” experienced proportional physical signs of stress. They showed elevated heart rate and increased cortisol levels.
Another study from U.C. San Francisco examined the impacts of a mother’s stress upon her child. This study is particularly revealing, because the children didn’t actually see their mothers undergo the stress tests. Instead, they played happily in another room while their moms had to deliver an impromptu speech to a group of frowning critics. But, when reunited with their mothers, every child showed elevated heart rates. Furthermore, the greater the mom’s stress symptoms, the greater the child’s stress symptoms.
How Is Stress “Passed On?”
So, how does “secondhand stress” get passed on to an innocent bystander? It happens through cues like:
- Facial expressions
- Voice frequency
Witnessing changes in these above cues in someone else who’s stressed can increase your own stress hormone levels. This occurs even if you’re not cognizant of the other person’s stressful experience!
You are 4 times more likely to catch stress from someone you know.
So, if your husband has a big job interview, it’s your daughter’s first day of school, or your friend is going through a divorce – these stressors can elicit stress in you as well. Even though you have the day off and are binge-watching CSI on Netflix, if a loved one is going through something tough, you’ll likely be feeling a bit more anxious than usual.
Why Does This Happen?
It’s hard for medical professionals to pinpoint the exact cause of this phenomenon, but they have a few ideas. One is encompassed by the term “Mirrored neurons.” This means that neurons in your brain are triggered by someone else’ stress, producing a physiological reaction that is mirroring that of the original person.
Another possible explanation is the human sense of empathy. The inclination to absorb someone else’s worries in an attempt to understand or ease another’s pain is a natural tendency in people. It’s part of what makes us so complex and compassionate, especially toward those we love.
How Can We Protect Ourselves?
Since we’re undergoing symptoms of stress ourselves, the best protection against “secondhand stress” is to employ stress-reduction techniques, such as:
- Regular exercise
- Spending fun time with friends
- Gratitude exercises
- Deep breathing
- Calming nutrients such as chamomile, green tea and lemon balm
- Increasing daily intake of magnesium, the “calming” vitamin
- Scented candles, especially candles with lavender oils
- Shinrin-yoku, a Japanese term meaning a walk in the woods, which has been scientifically found to lower stress hormone levels
- Relaxing baths, especially with bath salts
- Reducing caffeine and increasing immune-boosting whole foods, such as green vegetables and organic berries
It’s a busy world and, even if you’re living a generally calm life, you are still susceptible to the stress surrounding you. If you’re a caring, compassionate person (which I know you are), your likelihood of emphasizing with a loved one going through a difficult time may put you at a higher risk for experiencing secondhand stress. Be careful out there, friends. Make sure you take care of yourself while you’re trying to take care of those around you!
Make sure YOUR attitude and energy are worth catching!
Janet Early is a health enthusiast living in Los Angeles and working as a researcher for a major television company. An aspiring writer, Janet discovered her passion for wholesome nutrition and natural healing while navigating the struggles of balancing food sensitivities in a modern world. In addition to nutrition, she enjoys traveling, storytelling and embarking on daily adventures.
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